When Scott Morrison announced his first tranche of stimulus on March 12 it seemed like very clever policy making. By the time he announced his second tranche on March 22 it was not only dwarfed but moot.
In those 10 days, the coronavirus showed its frightening exponential growth. On March 12, there were 100 cases in Australia. On March 22, there were more than 10 times the number, at 1098.
In that interval, Morrison himself changed. Whether through design, exhaustion or gravity, the slogans finally and suddenly ceased.
On March 12, when Morrison announced his stimulus package, he began by touting his government's "vibrant passion" and achievements on jobs ("more than one and a half million" since the Coalition came to government). He was still going to the footy to support his beloved Sharks and telling the rest of us to do the same, and he was talking in those inimitable terms about his nephew who is an apprentice for "a plumber down in the shire ... Warren, or Wazza as he's known".
When he told the nation on March 12 that there were "governments right across the country getting ahead, working together to stay ahead - and I can tell you, we've all going to keep our head", you could hear a collective groan. It was a reminder of "boots on the ground, planes in the sky, ships at sea, and trucks rolling in", and leads to the uncomfortable thought that an initiative for our Prime Minister is not one unless it can be packaged in a slogan. What comes first, the idea or the messaging?
Now, we still have "cushioning the blow" and "building the bridge", but these are slogans more serious than trite, and Morrison is visibly more focused, no longer running press conferences with an air of semi-amused distance, but delivering more clear and more urgent. Finally, perhaps, he means it.
On March 22, Morrison announced a package that was vastly different in scale from the stimulus announced 10 days earlier, but was not vastly different in kind. He scaled up from $22.9 billion in package number one to $189 billion, including $110 billion to shore up the banking system. He doubled the dole ($14 billion) and gave a second round of $750 cash payments to pensioners, but otherwise the measures largely built on what was announced on March 12.
The problem is on March 12, it was about keeping businesses in business and helping them keep staff employed. Even in a world where so much is unprecedented and shocking, the speed with which the virus is moving is blindsiding everyone. Now, it seems Morrison would probably have been better to simply hand out the cash.
Morrison became caught in his own trap. He set himself parameters based on the imperatives of late March. Stories were emerging everywhere of the bushfire largesse getting caught up in bureaucracy and not hitting the ground. He had spent the previous weeks dealing with questions about his much promised and fast vanishing surplus. He wanted to prove himself a better disaster manager than Kevin Rudd, who has been credited with saving Australia from recession in the global financial crisis. He didn't want to repeat Rudd's mistakes, Morrison told us.
These imperatives meant, in his words, measures they didn't "bury the budget for a decade". They meant measures that didn't involve lumbering bureaucratic tendering processes of the kind that led to delays in bushfire grants, and in the roll-out of Rudd's infrastructure projects - building school halls and installing pink batts.
"The tests that we set for this package were very strong," he said. "And one of the most important was, not coming up with, you know, fancy new schemes that would have to be set up with application forms and there'd be integrity issues and they had the potential to spin off into all sorts of directions. That would have been a very careless action and a reckless action."
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- Coronavirus stimulus package: $750 cash payments to 6.5 million Australians
- $25,000 cash hand-outs for firms, subsidies for apprentices
- The time is now more than ever for transparency and even dissent
But by working within existing systems, Morrison locked himself into the tax system and the Centrelink welfare system. Both have proven inadequate to the task.
Morrison's chief focus has been on business, with the idea of keeping businesses open and keeping people employed. He offered grants to match the tax paid by staff - in the first tranche the grants amount to half the tax bill (up to $50,000) and in the second tranche that was doubled to the entire tax bill (up to $100,000). He guaranteed 50 per cent of the value of loans to business. With banks, he has offered three-year interest-free, no-repayments-for-six-months loans to businesses. He is paying half the wages of apprentices. And he is offering tax incentives for businesses to buy equipment. As mentioned, this looked clever on March 12: Loads of help, but only if staff were on the books and business was spending money, and using the business activity statements and the tax system so grants could be made without any paperwork.
By March 22, it looked faintly beside the point. The vastly expanded business measures were announced last Sunday morning. Last Sunday night, Morrison announced that many of those businesses - pubs, clubs, restaurants nightclubs, gyms, with tens of thousands of workers on their payrolls - must close.
Last Sunday morning, Morrison announced that the dole would be effectively doubled to $1100 a fortnight, again using an existing set-up, in this case Centrelink and Newstart, to get money to people. On Monday morning, Centrelink was overwhelmed, the website crashing and queues at shop fronts around the country extending for blocks. If Morrison wanted to give the impression that he has this and we should all stay calm, those queues starkly said just the opposite.
In the same way, Morrison's efforts to keep people "going and getting about your normal business" and his desperation to keep businesses alive have led to a piecemeal and inconsistent shutdown that has lent itself to ridicule and is likely, in the end, to seem misguided when what feels like an inevitable total shutdown is finally imposed.
Yes, hindsight is easy. But what hindsight tells us in the coronavirus crisis is that if Morrison wanted to "get ahead", as he said on so many occasions when he was attempting to calm the horses, he might have been better to hand out the cash. Not through a fancy new system, but perhaps a simple new system - say, $1000 a week to every Australian for six weeks, alongside a complete lockdown. There's $150 billion blown, but with mandated and subsidised rent relief for businesses and matched rates relief from states, it would have saved the slow and confused death of so many small businesses, and the headache and heartache of dole queues for which Morrison must now scramble to set up a bureaucracy to handle.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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